Bahraini's protesting in 2011 - Lewa'a Alnasr, wikimedia
It’s been five years since the uprising began in Bahrain. It started with peaceful protests, only to be crushed by an authoritarian government that enjoys the backing of a compliant media and the support of some of the most powerful Western countries.
Since then, the Bahraini authorities have spent millions of pounds on lobbyists and PR agencies to whitewash their abuses. They have put huge resources into wooing regional powers and world leaders, but none of that can change the terrible cruelties they have inflicted on their own people.
I spoke to Isa Al-Aali, a Bahraini activist who was arrested and tortured during the Bahraini uprising. He was then put in a detention centre and threatened with deportation upon claiming asylum in the UK.
Isa was only 17 at the time of the ‘Arab Spring.’ He dreamt of going to university and becoming a lawyer. His life was transformed in 2013 when he attended a protest in Sanabis village. It was there that he noticed the police were following him. “12 cars started to chase me down the street,” he told me. “I was extremely scared and I knew I had to get away. They were driving extremely fast, as if they were trying to crush me.”
Before he could get away, a police officer ran up behind him, jumped on his back and pinned him down. “He told me to get up and that he wanted to take me to the police station,” remembers Isa. “I tried to refuse, telling him that I didn’t do anything wrong. As I was on the ground another police officer put a gun to my head and said to me: “Do you want me to kill you?”
The officers threw him into the car drove him away. They eventually stopped in a dark, open area. One of the officers shouted at him, accusing him of starting a fire and throwing Molotov cocktails. They also began to ask him questions about who he knew, trying to find out more information.
Isa repeatedly told them that he hadn’t done anything wrong. They shouted at him and threatened him, before punching him in the face and beating him, full-force, with their guns and helmets. “They told me that if I didn’t give them the answers they wanted to hear then they would show me something that I have never seen before.” The beating got worse, with his attackers removing his clothes and one of them holding a sharp knife against his genitals.
“They told me they were going to cut my penis if I didn’t give them the information. I told him, I don’t know what you’re talking about. They pressed the knife against me and for a moment I thought that they had cut it.”
The police continued to beat and torture him, kicking and punching him until one officer threw him out of the car and on the ground. “Because I was unable to speak, they tortured me again. After that I was taken to the police station. I was in so much pain that I was unable to walk, eat or sleep” Isa says. They refused to let him see a doctor or take a shower. “I was locked up and unable to speak to my family.”
He was finally released three months later, but even then he was not free. The police continued contacting him, telling him to give them information, or they would kill him. Isa knew that as long as the regime stayed in place he had no future in Bahrain.
He travelled to the UK in February 2014, claiming asylum at the airport. The Home Office refused his claim, threatening to deport him back to Bahrain, despite the appalling human rights situation. Thankfully, after a public campaign, the high court intervened to stop the deportation.
Isa's story is shocking but it is not an isolated case. There are many others in Bahrain who share similar stories. A recent report by Amnesty International charted and condemned four years of “rampant abuses including torture, arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against peaceful activists and government critics.”
Instead of calling for an end to the violence and repression being carried out in Bahrain, the UK government is proud of its relationship with the regime. Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, not only refers to Bahrain as an ally, but has described it as a country that is “heading in the right direction.”
Arms companies and governments like the UK have treated the conflict as a business opportunity, with a significant increase in arms sales. Between February 2011 and September 2015, the U.K. licensed £45 million ($64 million) worth of arms to Bahrain. These have included machine guns, sniper rifles, gun mountings, assault rifles and anti-armour ammunition.
In December 2014, following a long series of diplomatic visits and photo-ops, a Defence Agreement was agreed between the UK and Bahrain. One outcome of this is that the U.K. will open a naval base in Bahrain, most of which has been paid for by Bahrain. In the U.K. the news was welcomed by ministers like Hammond. But in Bahrain it was met with angry protests outside the British embassy, a reminder that Bahraini people see it as an endorsement of the oppression they are facing.
Isa has continued to take action against the Bahraini government and the UK's complicity in arming and supporting it. He is currently facing a court case for protesting the DSEI arms fair last September. What sort of justice can it be that people who have experienced state repression are put on trial, while the regime that was responsible has the red carpet rolled out for it?
The message it sends out is clear. It isn’t just that the UK is happy to work with dictatorships, but also that as long as there is money to be made then arms company profits will always be of more importance than the human rights of people like Isa.
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